“Hhmmm. I guess his legs are straight, I mean, I don’t know, I never noticed they were crooked,” I thought, as I sat in the classroom listening to the conformation seminar and watching the slides on the screen of really bad looking horses. None of my horses have conformation faults…or do they? Well, after you sink yourself into conformation studies, you do end up going home and finding all sorts of things about your own horses you had NO IDEA they had. It just goes to show that there is no perfect horse, they all have faults, it’s just a matter of what YOU can live with. First of all, you have to know what YOU are doing — and what your horse needs to enable him to do that, too. Then you have to assess your horse’s conformation with the eye of a critic, or judge, and not the eye of the master!

A tall 17-hand horse with typical Thoroughbred conformation - long in the back, but decently muscled in hindquarter despite the classic slightly downhill topline

A tall 17-hand horse with typical Thoroughbred conformation – long in the back, but decently muscled in hindquarter despite the classic slightly downhill topline

The way a horse is built does determine what he can do. I believe this because it is the truth of centuries of biology. Man took the horse and selectively bred him for what he wanted to do with him. Thus the Thoroughbred horse, for over 400 years selected for speed, became a machine that galloped fast. He needed big lungs, a big engine (hindquarters), good speed producing limbs that could make efficient, long, energy-saving strides, a lightweight body to use less energy and muscles to produce the energy. Man bred all this stuff into the Thoroughbred, but Man isn’t real smart some times and he bred a lot of undesirable stuff into horses, too.

We all have imperfections in our barns. Take a good look at your horses. Start with the basic body and underpinning – from the hooves on up. Are the legs faulty? Where? How does the bony column line up for each leg? Does one turn out or in slightly? Go to the side of the horse and check the straightness of the forelimb and the angles of the hindlimbs. Is the horse’s knee flat and straight, or is he back at the knee? Is the hock straight and clean, or hooked under? Is the stifle large and open, located below the sheath? Does the hindquarter look like a number “7” or have more angles?

Looking at the points of a horse, when your eye goes over the outline, is something you have to practice and learn. The topline points are the back, withers, the angle and slope of the croup and the loin coupling (part between the saddle pad and the croup). Jumping and eventing horses, and dressage horses too, need a strong loin coupling to gather themselves for a jump, or for upper level work. Strong, clean hocks and knees (in a “shield” shape viewed from the front) is critical for long, sound lives under saddle or in work. Dense, strong, short cannon bones are also associated with long term soundness. Shoulders that are not too sloped, yet not too straight are desirable. At least one conformation expert I’ve listened to recently was adamant that withers be prominent in a riding horse, for saddle fit and for freedom of shoulder movement.

This horse is back at the knee - the straightline dropped from the shoulder straight down to the ground has a dip backward at the knee area. This is a weakness for sport horses.

This horse is back at the knee – the straightline dropped from the shoulder straight down to the ground has a dip backward at the knee area. This is a weakness for sport horses.

Go out and check your horse! What do you see? Having fun determining conformation in your horses is a fun exercise and helps us to understand their limitations. Making a horse go on the bit is a direct function of his conformation, and most of the best trainers in the world know this very well, and select their discipline’s mounts accordingly — it’s not a coincidence that our greatest trainers are also great horsemen and women and experts in conformation as well as training; ask one of these greats sometime how important conformation is to their success!

Strengthening the horse with proper riding and training requires a knowledge of his basic conformation; you can’t make a horse do what his body simply cannot manage. A horse isn’t meant to go around with the head tucked into the throat, cutting off his air and overbending the neck vertebrae, or forced into an unnatural carriage with severe bits, equipment, or cruel management. Their bodies give us many many hours of incredible joy and service, the least we can do is study who they are and what they can do and ride them accordingly.

Expert Dr. Deb Bennett has a website with a huge amount of interesting and educational information on equine conformation. Here’s the link if you would like to further educate yourself on conformation.

Holly